Life After Life follows protagonist Ursula Todd through a variety of lives in twentieth-century Britain. Each chapter describes an alternative path that Ursula’s life could follow, ending with her (often premature) death. In some versions of Ursula’s story, Atkinson provides her main character with slightly different circumstances, which adjust the trajectory of her life. In other versions, Ursula has pangs of “déjà vu,” which lead her to try to avert the disaster that led to her death in a previous life. Through her wide-reaching exploration of Ursula’s various reincarnations, Atkinson argues that there is no “correct” way to live, as even versions that appear “better” do not necessarily mean that Ursula lives a longer or more fulfilling life.
Throughout the novel, Atkinson repeats Ursula’s mother Sylvie’s mantra, “practice makes perfect,” leaving room for the possibility that there are better versions of one’s life that can be lived. This can be observed in the first phase of Ursula’s life, in which the circumstances around her birth and her early childhood change in each version that Atkinson writes and allows her to live longer and longer. After a short prologue, Atkinson begins Ursula’s story with tragedy: she chokes on her umbilical cord when being born because both Mrs. Haddock (the midwife) and Dr. Fellowes (the family doctor) are stuck in a snow storm. In subsequent versions, Dr. Fellowes arrives on time, providing Ursula with the ability to have a life in the first place. In another storyline, when Ursula is four years old, she follows her older sister Pamela out into the ocean when a big wave catches her and she drowns, but in a subsequent chapter, a man on the beach sees her and her sister and is able to rescue Ursula from her death. In yet another early chapter, Ursula’s older brother Maurice throws a doll of hers out of her bedroom window when she is five years old. She chases after it: in one version, she falls off the roof to her death; in another, the family’s maid Bridget comes up the stairs and prevents Ursula from jumping onto the roof. The clear progression of these early chapters does imply that there is a particular tragedy in a person who dies very young, and that they should be given the chance to have some kind of fulfillment.
Yet later storylines complicate the idea that what seems to be a happier or a longer life is necessarily better, arguing that sometimes, bad things are necessary to prevent worse things from happening. Ursula becomes increasingly cognizant over time of her ability to change her fate, which leads her to try to prevent her own death in some storylines. When Ursula is nine, Bridget visits London to celebrate the end of World War I and catches the flu, leading to Bridget, Ursula, and her younger brother Teddy’s deaths. In later versions, Ursula tries to prevent Bridget from going, even resorting to pushing Bridget down the stairs so that she becomes injured and cannot go. When Ursula is sixteen, she has a crush on a neighbor of hers, Benjamin Cole. Their romance (which is stifled in some versions, and fully-fledged in others) alters the life of another neighbor, Nancy Shawcross. When Ursula is rebuffed by Benjamin, she ends up walking Nancy home after a birthday celebration. But in the versions in which Ursula and Benjamin’s romance flourishes, they sneak away to kiss, and Nancy is murdered while walking home alone. Thus, even though Ursula is happier, her happiness leads to a far worse outcome for someone else. Perhaps the ultimate example of the idea that a longer life does not necessarily lead to the happiest life emerges in the timelines surrounding World War II. Ursula realizes that she can change the trajectory of the war by befriending a girl Eva Braun early in her life. Eva eventually becomes Hitler’s mistress, allowing Ursula to get close to him and kill him in 1930, prior to the rise of the Nazi Party. Ursula knows that shooting Hitler will lead to her immediate death (which it does), but she also believes that this action will prevent global suffering, tragedy, and death (including her own and that of several of her family members). However, Ursula’s final life sees her reuniting with her brother Teddy after the war, leaving it ambiguous whether Ursula believes that this ultimate sacrifice is truly worth making.
Atkinson’s novel has broad implications concerning success and happiness, as Ursula’s reincarnations raise the question of what constitutes a good life or a better life. In treating each possible storyline with equal validity, Atkinson argues that there is no right version, forcing readers to evaluate which of Ursula’s lives they find most compelling or satisfying, and to evaluate their own idea of what makes life fulfilling.
Life, Reincarnation, and Alternate Possibilities ThemeTracker
Life, Reincarnation, and Alternate Possibilities Quotes in Life After Life
No breath. All the world come down to this. One breath […] Panic. The drowning girl, the falling bird.
“God surely wanted this baby back,” Bridget said when she came in later that morning with a cup of steaming beef tea.
“We have been tested,” Sylvie said, “and found not wanting.”
“This time,” Bridget said.
Ursula had been about to plunge out of the window in Queen Solange’s wake, intent on delivering her from the no man’s land of the roof, when something made her hesitate. A little doubt, a faltering foot and the thought that the roof was very high and the night very wide.
Bridget went flying, toppling down the stairs in a great flurry of arms and legs. Ursula only just managed to stop herself from following in her wake.
Practice makes perfect.
So much for progress. How quickly civilization could dissolve into its more ugly elements. Look at the Germans, the most cultured and well mannered of people, and yet... Auschwitz, Treblinka, Bergen-Belsen.
“Could you do that? Could you kill a baby? With a gun? Or what if you had no gun, how about with your bare hands? In cold blood.”
If I thought it would save Teddy, Ursula thought. Not just Teddy, of course, the rest of the world, too.
“We only have one after all, we should try and do our best. We can never get it right, but we must try.” (The transformation was complete.)
“What if we had a chance to do it again and again,” Teddy said, “until we finally did get it right? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”
“I think it would be exhausting.”
Become such as you are, having learned what that is. She knew what that was now. She was Ursula Beresford Todd and she was a witness.
She opened her arms to the black bat and they flew to each other, embracing in the air like long-lost souls. This is love, Ursula thought. And the practice of it makes it perfect.
Ursula stayed where she was, worried suddenly that if she moved it would all disappear, the whole happy scene break into pieces before her eyes. But then she thought, no, this was real, this was true, and she laughed with uncomplicated joy as Teddy let go of Nancy long enough to stand to attention and give Ursula a smart salute.